A SPECK OF A VILLAGE AT THE NORTHERNMOST TIP OF MAINE, ESTCOURT STATION IS (SOMETIMES LITERALLY) THE PLACE YOU CAN'T GET TO FROM HERE.

by VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
photographed by MICHAEL D. WILSON

NOWHERE
LAND

A SPECK OF A VILLAGE AT THE NORTHERNMOST TIP OF MAINE, ESTCOURT STATION IS (SOMETIMES LITERALLY) THE PLACE YOU CAN'T GET TO FROM HERE.

by VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
photographed by MICHAEL D. WILSON

NOWHERE
LAND

A SPECK OF A VILLAGE AT THE NORTHERNMOST TIP OF MAINE, ESTCOURT STATION IS (SOMETIMES LITERALLY) THE PLACE YOU CAN'T GET TO FROM HERE.

by VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
photographed by MICHAEL D. WILSON

The forest is falling away behind us when Scot Bubier turns his hatchback off the dirt road he calls Smuggler’s Lane and into a meadow, following a track of flattened grass. To our right is the edge of the North Maine Woods, the 3.5-million-acre undeveloped forestland we entered 2 hours ago, some 40 bone-rattling logging-road miles south of here, in the town of Allagash. To our left is a row of small houses and tidy backyards. We reach a gravel road, which Bubier no sooner takes than he’s turning off of it, cutting through a backyard, slipping between two houses, and finally, pulling onto a patchy paved road named Rue de la Frontière. Border Street.

“Here’s how I drive when I have my shotgun in the car,” Bubier says. He pulls the car to the right, steering the passenger-side wheels onto the shoulder so we don’t drift into Canada, an arm’s reach from his driver’s-side window. We pass a boarded-up yellow house before turning into the driveway of Bubier’s hunting and fishing retreat, a plain, two-story house with peeling pale-blue shingles. It’s the country’s northernmost house east of the Mississippi and the unassuming terminus of Maine’s most peculiar settlement.

Estcourt Station, in Big Twenty Township, comprises one vacant gas station and five houses, all of them unoccupied most of the year. It shares Rue de la Frontière with Estcourt, a village within the Quebec town of Pohénégamook, encompassing one closed sawmill and a dozen houses, most occupied year-round. Together, they’re segregated by boundaries: natural ones, like the vast forest to the south and Kelly Rapids, just west of Bubier’s house; built ones, like the 30-foot-high railway embankment that prevents anyone from seeing glittering Lake Pohénégamook; and cultural ones, with mostly English spoken in the Maine houses and mostly French in the Quebec ones.

Then there’s the international border, marked by a line of waist-high obelisks. A quarter-mile from Bubier’s place, tucked among a string of houses, is the Canadian Border Services Agency, a small, ungated white-clapboarded building. A half-mile beyond that, at the entrance to a private logging road, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is housed in a corrugated-steel building fronted by barrier gates and tall, thick, bilious-yellow monitors that screen vehicles for radiation.

Mostly, though, the border is invisible, and it slices diagonally across Rue de la Frontière and directly through eight properties, dividing kitchens, bedrooms, and gardens between two nations. As a first-time visitor exploring the neighborhood, I was sometimes unsure which country I was in, but residents have a keen sense of where they need to step or drive in order to avoid the hassle of reporting to one border station or the other. It’s not uncommon, Scot Bubier says, for him to fish from the bank of Kelly Rapids right alongside a Quebecker, each man casting from his own country.

Estcourt Station, Maine
Approaching Estcourt Station from the North Maine Woods. Just beyond is Pohénégamook, Quebec.
Estcourt Station Map

A companionable 63-year-old with a warm and kindly disposition, Bubier gets a kick out of such incongruities — how the border seems at once arbitrary and monumental. His job selling wood pellets takes him all over the state, but he’s never encountered another community like Estcourt Station. Two or three times a year, he and his wife gather their grandchildren and make the 315-mile trip from their Farmington home to fish for trout and hunt for partridge in the North Maine Woods and to swim in Lake Pohénégamook, just on the other side of that railway berm.

But Bubier says Estcourt Station is not the place it was in 2002, when he bought his house for $5,000 through the Maine Revenue Services tax-acquired-property bidding program. Then, he had more neighbors, the gas station was open, and there was a convenience store in the house next door. Canadians flocked to both businesses for cheap American fuel and cheap American cigarettes. Now, Bubier says, “The community has dried up. It’s a shame.”
The reasons aren’t difficult to discern. Unless you’re a lumberjack or logging-truck driver, there are few jobs for Americans here, and the nearest prospective employer is 40 miles away in Fort Kent. Canadians can’t live year-round in the houses on the U.S. side, because they’re not allowed to stay in the country more than six months a year. And then there are all the anxieties and inconveniences that come with that invisible line.

There’s an easier way to get to Estcourt Station than the forest roads Bubier followed when he brought me up to open his camp for the season. Usually, he crosses into Canada from Fort Kent, then takes well-traveled roads through the lake-dotted New Brunswick and Quebec countryside. Within an hour, he’s in Pohénégamook, turning onto Rue de la Frontière to report to U.S. customs. He doesn’t pass through the gate — that would send him into the Maine woods. Instead, he retraces his route on Rue de la Frontière and goes straight to his house, driving in Canada for all but the last 30 yards.

Estcourt Station

When Bubier and I made the trip, however, the U.S. border post was closed for mud season, a period of four to six weeks when the logging trucks that make up the bulk of the cross-border traffic don’t run. By driving the woods roads (which, lucky for us, were rough but not muddy) and zigzagging behind Canadian houses with American backyards, Bubier never left the U.S.

The story of how the former municipality of Estcourt Township (and some of its houses) came to straddle two countries is fuzzy. A kiosk in a small international park, just opposite Bubier’s house, says the lumbering town was assumed to be entirely in Canada until the early 20th century. That’s when the boundary markers were installed along the route established in 1842 by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which resolved several border issues between the U.S. and British-controlled Canada. (The township was named after the British boundary commissioner, James Bucknall Bucknall Estcourt).

Suzanne Bouchard, a spokeswoman for the town of Pohénégamook, told me the intersected homes predate the treaty. “This caused houses to end up with an imaginary line,” she wrote in an email, “separating them with a Canadian part and an American part.”

Another story, shared in newspaper features over the years, says that the houses were inadvertently moved onto the boundary to make way for the railway in 1908.

A Maine house’s electric meter is on a pole on the Quebec side, accessible to Canadian meter readers
Estcourt Station's shuttered gas station
Scot Bubier on the Kelly Rapids footbridge.

A Maine house’s electric meter is on a pole on the Quebec side, accessible to Canadian meter readers; the town’s shuttered gas station; Scot Bubier on the Kelly Rapids footbridge.

Whichever story is true, a relaxed attitude toward border crossings prevailed throughout most of the 20th century. The American slice of the neighborhood eventually became known as Estcourt Station, which was the designation affixed to the U.S. border post, but the community functioned as one place — “Estcourt” — and residents moved about with little regard to what country they were in. Then, as now, border officers from both countries worked daytime hours five days a week, but when they went home for the evening or weekend, they didn’t put up a gate the way the Americans do today (the Canadian station has no gate, and a sign instructs drivers to use an outdoor telephone to call an officer on duty in Clair, New Brunswick). No one cared that people would cross after hours to buy cigarettes at Magasin General Americain, the store that operated out of the house next to Scot Bubier’s, or to fuel up at Gaz-bar Ouellette, about 60 yards inside U.S. territory, off Rue de la Frontière.

Estcourt did have a reputation for smuggling, though, dating to Prohibition, when Quebec bootlegger Alfred Lévesque cached booze here. Later, alcohol and cigarettes flowed in the other direction. The Kelly Rapids footbridge, which links Pohénégamook and Estcourt Station, was once nicknamed Tobacco Road for all the locals from the Canadian side who crossed it to buy American cigarettes by the garbage-bagful at Magasin General.

In the early 1990s, Quebec revenue agents decided to crack down on this practice. They surveilled the store, recording customers’ license-plate numbers and sending them letters demanding to know how many tobacco products they’d purchased and whether they intended to resell them. Canadian customs got involved too, ending an informal policy that allowed locals to buy one tax-free and duty-free cigarette package a day. Twice, customs officers staked out the place at night, when the border post was closed, and seized tobacco purchased by people who were crossing back into Canada illegally.

Accustomed to coming and going pretty much as they pleased, residents on both sides bristled at the strict enforcement. They complained to the Bangor Daily News about “the tobacco police” and the Quebec government’s “scare tactics.” One man griped, “I thought the KGB died with the Soviet Union.” They hadn’t seen anything yet.

Retired Maine game warden Phil Dumond
A house straddling the U.S.–Canada border
Bubier’s grandson, Eben, at the family camp.

Retired Maine game warden Phil Dumond; a house straddling the U.S.–Canada border; Bubier’s grandson, Eben, at the family camp.

The last year-round resident of Estcourt Station was Philip Dumond, a Maine game warden who arrived at the outpost in 1957 and spent the next 38 years stalking poachers in a 720-square-mile territory with 75 miles of international border. A lifelong bachelor, he lived alone and walked 30 miles a day in the woods, even in winter, when temps have been known to drop to 40 degrees below zero. At night, he’d lie awake thinking about ways to outsmart Canadian poachers who knew they needed only to bolt across the border to avoid arrest. Now 87, Dumond remembers his life in Estcourt Station with affection, pride, frustration, and sadness. “I’ll never be normal again,” he jokes.

Born into a large Franco-American family in Fort Kent, Dumond grew up speaking French, the skill that would land him, at age 26, a law-enforcement job no one else wanted. “The people up there speak very little English,” he explains, when we meet in the lounge of the Fort Kent residential care facility he’s called home since 2015. At the time, even Estcourt Station’s residents were all dual citizens and ethnically French Canadian. “If I’d have gotten married, I would have had to have two TVs — one for the woman to watch French programs and one for me to watch American programs.”

His work was dangerous. Some people attacked him. They threw punches and swung canoe paddles at his head. Several raised their rifles when he approached. “I had a gun pulled in my face so many times, but I never shot anybody,” Dumond says. “I would talk to them, because most of these people from Quebec and New Brunswick are Catholic, and it’s a mortal sin to kill anybody. We’d sit down and talk, and the next thing you know we’d be laughing. I was much more afraid of the Moosetowners — the people from Allagash. They were hard to deal with. I had to convince myself that these people didn’t want to hurt me. Otherwise, I never could have worked there.”

Even so, he loved the forest and the rivers and hunting for moose, deer, and partridge. Whenever he’d visit his family in Fort Kent, he found himself missing Estcourt Station. “I’d hurry back. It was my home.”

The foot bridge toward the Canadian border
A fallen gas station sign
The U.S. border station

The footbridge connecting Estcourt Station to Pohénégamook; a fallen gas station sign; the U.S. border station.

Canadian border station

But things changed dramatically in Estcourt Station after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With security tightened, the border was no longer a casual matter. Nearly all his life, Dumond had walked down his driveway and crossed the Kelly Rapids footbridge to shop for groceries and attend church in Pohénégamook. Now, he had to report to the U.S. border post on Rue de la Frontière every time he returned from that walk. On weekends, he couldn’t cross at all until he was approved for a remote border permit, which allowed him to call in his entries to Fort Kent, but required interviews and fingerprinting in Houlton, three hours away. Weekend and evening visits from friends and family were out of the question.

“Suddenly, the people who worked at the border acted like they didn’t know you,” Dumond says. “It was like I was a criminal. Why should they treat me that way? I never had any trouble with the customs people.”

By the time he moved to Fort Kent, Dumond says, he felt he’d “do better living in a jail” than in the place he’d called home for 58 years.

He wasn’t the only one distressed by the new normal. In 2002, the arrests of two Pohénégamook men — for failing to report to U.S. customs before fueling up at the Gaz-bar — had a chilling effect on the community. The first man to be arrested, Dany Ouellet, was handcuffed and hauled off to jail, where he was held for 10 days. He was barred from entering the U.S. for five years. A few months later, U.S. border agents stopped lumberjack Michel Jalbert when he went to buy gas after hours. It was partridge-hunting season, and Jalbert’s shotgun was in his Jeep. He was held in an American prison for 35 days before striking a plea bargain that allowed him to plead guilty to one charge of being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm (he was sentenced to time already served). Jalbert’s arrest made international news, and then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell intervened after being questioned about it during a diplomatic visit to Ottawa.

After the arrests, Dumond had trouble getting jittery Pohénégamook town crews to pick up his trash, and he had to reach all the way to Fort Kent to find a plow driver willing to clear his driveway. Business at Magasin General Americain and Gaz-bar Ouellette plummeted. The store closed soon after, and the house in which it operated was sold to an elderly man who has since died. The gas station closed in 2017.

When Dumond moved in 2015, it was as if he simply closed the door on his former life and walked away. He sold his house with its entire contents — canoes and rowboats, old uniforms, ham radio equipment, and a basement full of canned goods that Pohénégamook residents had given him in exchange for the surplus garden vegetables he often set out on Rue de la Frontière.

Bubier and his grandson, Eben, fish in Wildcat Brook at the northern edge of the North Maine Woods.
Bubier and his grandson, Eben, fish in Wildcat Brook at the northern edge of the North Maine Woods.
A Canadian National Railway train passes atop the berm in front of Scot Bubier’s camp, the northernmost house east of the Mississippi.
A Canadian National Railway train passes atop the berm in front of Scot Bubier’s camp, the northernmost house east of the Mississippi.

It seems unlikely that life in Estcourt Station will ever be the way it was when Phil Dumond lived there. The days of casual border crossings are gone. Anyone coming into the United States from Canada must check in at U.S. customs — and vice versa — just like anywhere else along the 5,125-mile border, says David Albert, the port director for United States Customs and Border Protection in Fort Kent and Estcourt Station.

The agency takes a practical approach to enforcement when it comes to the eight properties that straddle the border. All are currently occupied by Canadians, so U.S. customs treats the properties as if they are entirely in Canada. “You know, we’re not going to have you come check in with us when you go to the bathroom in a back room that’s in the United States,” Albert says. Were the occupants American, the house and property would be viewed as being on American soil, he says. The border isn’t flexible when it comes to property taxes, though: homeowners pay prorated taxes in both Maine and Quebec.

People who have acquired property in Estcourt Station since 9/11 seem to take the border-imposed limitations imposed in stride. Scot Bubier is trying to sell his house, but not because of border issues. The nearly six-hour drive from Farmington has become tedious, he says, and he can find good hunting and fishing closer to home. Also, he misses his friend Phil Dumond, who took him to all the good fishing and hunting spots. “A lot of the happy times involved Phil,” Bubier says “Selling is bittersweet.”

Chris Williams is one of Bubier’s neighbors, though they’re rarely in Estcourt Station at the same time; this spring, Williams arrived to open his house a couple of weeks after Bubier and I left. A cattle rancher from Kentucky, he spends a few weeks every summer in the house he and his sister inherited from their parents, believers in the End Times who bought a place as far from the center of the coming Apocalypse as they could find without leaving the U.S. Williams never visited when his parents were alive, and he had little interest in seeing Estcourt Station until a few years ago, when his sister insisted.

“So my wife and I came up, and we were blown away,” he says.

Now, he and his wife, Joanna, use the house as a base for exploring the Quebec countryside and zipping up to the Saint Lawrence River, about an hour’s drive. On weekends, they stay in Maine and go moose watching in the woods. And Williams figures that his house — just 50 yards behind Canadian customs — is “the most secure house in the world.” Who would dare burglarize it?

Estcourt Station, Maine
Estcourt Station, Maine
Estcourt Station, Maine

The town’s former gas station, as seen from Canada; Scot Bubier on the porch of his camp; the view from under the bridge.

Eventually, he says, he and Joanna would like to spend their whole summers there. He concedes that crossing the border can be a nuisance, but rarely at Estcourt Station. Rather, he and Joanna are typically delayed at the Thousand Islands border station in upstate New York, which is on their driving route home. There, suspicious officers pepper them with questions about the number of trips they made in and out of Maine and Quebec. “They just don’t understand what this place is,” Williams says.

In a year or two, Estcourt Station may have a year-round population again. Alabaman Steve Stahlman bought Phil Dumond’s house sight unseen in 2016, following a brutally hot summer in Montgomery. He’s renovating the place and intends to make it his home most of the year. He’s already a registered voter.

For Stahlman, Estcourt Station represents the realization of a longtime dream. He grew up in a military family and has lived all over the country, including in New England. A stint at a New Hampshire Boy Scout camp made a deep impression and inspired an enduring curiosity about the north country. “I’m a geographer, and I love exploring places,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in Aroostook County, but I never got as far as Allagash.”

He saw Dumond’s old house for the first time in May 2017. “After I’d been there about two weeks, I realized, this is it, this is where I want to live.” He has since spent a couple weeks in Estcourt Station last summer and this one, using the time to find new homes for the stuff Dumond left behind and overseeing renovations to the house. He wants to add a second story, so he can see over the embankment to Lake Pohénégamook, which stretches north for nearly 6 miles.

Stahlman doesn’t speak French, but he delights in hearing it at the Pohénégamook grocery store. He feels welcomed by his Estcourt neighbors, who helped him set up his electricity and town water. And he’s embraced the quirks that come with living in Estcourt Station, like the way he managed to get his flat tire changed after the border stations were closed: he parked his car in the U.S. at the end of the closed gas station driveway, and the mechanic worked on it from the street, in Canada.

“I’m having a ball living here,” he says. “I’m intrigued with it, and I’m okay with the limitations. It still has to be the nicest border region in the whole United States. And when Scot’s not here, I get to be the northernmost resident east of the Mississippi.”

Canadian border - The U.S. Canada Stripe
The U.S. Canada Stripe. Moose-hunting shacks can be seen on the Canadian side to the right.